Why Dogs are More Like Humans Than Wolves

The dumb dog days are over, says evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare

Jim Craigmyle/Corbis

Brian Hare began studying dog intelligence as an undergraduate at Emory University in the 1990s, after realizing that Oreo, his Labrador retriever, had a remarkable ability. Unlike other animals, even chimpanzees, Oreo could interpret human gestures, following a person’s gaze or a pointing finger. From early experiments with the family dogs in his parents’ Atlanta garage, Hare went on to found the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University. Now, in The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter than You Think, Hare and coauthor Vanessa Woods detail recent research about man’s brilliant best friend. Not only do dogs possess social intelligence far beyond that of their wolf ancestors, Hare says, but in many ways they’re more like us than our own primate relatives. Hare is also the lead scientist behind Dognition.com, a new website that offers pet owners the opportunity to participate in a massive citizen science project—and uncover the genius in their own precious pooches.

What is the secret to dogs’ intelligence?

The genius of dogs is that they use probably the most powerful tool on Earth to solve problems—humans. At one point in wolf evolution, a group of wolves decided to take advantage of humans, and they have been really successful because of it. It’s probably not a surprise to people that dogs are socially tuned-in to us. But I think what’s new is the understanding that this skill is absolutely remarkable in the animal world. When you talk about survival of the fittest, most people think nature is “red in tooth and claw.” But dogs domesticated themselves through a natural process, where the less aggressive, most friendly, tolerant individuals actually did much better.

How has the scientific understanding of dogs changed?

We’ve learned more in the past 10 years than in the previous 100 years. When identifying intelligence in animals, what people are most interested in is where animals make inferences. These are situations in which they can’t actually perceive a solution, so they have to infer it spontaneously. If you are going to find that kind of intelligence, you’re not going to find it in a dog, or so it was thought. Scientists had theorized that dogs, through domestication, have become dumbed-down, because they just sit around and take scraps from us. What do they need to be smart about? The guess was animals like a bonobo or a dolphin or other charismatic megafauna were where to look. But it turns out in many ways dogs are more like us than even great apes.

How are they like us?

Dogs are the only species that have demonstrated that they can learn words in a manner similar to a little kid. It’s not that other species that we think of as being highly intelligent, like bonobos and dolphins, can’t become sophisticated at communicating using symbols, but there’s some nice evidence that dogs are using an inferential strategy, which takes advantage of what’s called the principle of exclusion. They know that a number of objects are named or labeled with a sound, and when a new one is introduced that they do not have a label for, and they hear a new sound that they’ve never heard before, they infer that the new sound must apply to this new object. That has only been observed in human children before. That was a big shocker, and it’s been replicated. It even gets crazier than that—several border collies are using what’s called the principal of iconicity. You can show them a two-dimensional picture, and they will then go fetch the object in the picture. That’s something people thought only kids could do, and that it would only be in a linguistic species that that would be possible.

That’s amazing, but it’s a small sample size—isn’t it possible these dogs were outliers?

We don’t know. I don’t think it’s chance that the dogs that have demonstrated this are border collies. But that is not to say that border collies are somehow the most intelligent breed. All dogs are probably able to make the type of inferences that the border collies are making. The question is, can they use that exclusionary principle when learning words? It’s entirely possible that all of our dogs have this hidden talent that we just don’t know how to take advantage of.

What are some other new findings about dog intelligence?

There’s a lot of research into how dogs solve problems. For instance, in a new experiment, a dog demonstrated opening a sliding door, using one of two techniques. It turns out other dogs will copy the first dog and use that same technique the very first time they open the door. That is not something that most people would have expected. [A hundred years ago, British psychologist] C. Lloyd Morgan was one of the first people to write about animal intelligence from an experimental perspective. One of the great anecdotes he tells is about how his dog Tony struggled to open a gate, and through trial and error, he slowly learned a solution. It looked like Tony the terrier was a genius, but because Morgan had watched the problem-solving develop, he knew that Tony didn’t understand anything, that it was all chance trial and error. Morgan then concluded that when you see animals doing intelligent things, you must consider that there’s a very low-level mechanism that allowed them to solve the problem. But the new finding is, if he had only shown Tony how to open the gate, Tony could have learned almost immediately how to do it. You make the problem social and dogs do fantastically.

You also cite studies that show dogs can be deceptive. How does that demonstrate genius?

Those studies show that dogs are using information about what humans can see or hear to make decisions about how to behave around us. In one study, dogs spontaneously avoid retrieving food from a box with noisemakers when they have been told not to eat it, [instead choosing to steal food from a box that a human has demonstrated does not make noise]. This suggests they might be aware of what we can and cannot hear. Similarly, a number of studies have shown that dogs avoid misbehaving if you are watching them, but are more likely to act up if you have your back turned, or even your eyes closed!

So there is such thing as a bad dog. But can this new science of dog cognition help us train them better?

No pun intended, I don’t really have a dog in the fight about how to train dogs, but it’s an important question. People love dogs, and they want to help their dogs have a rich life, and they can do that by helping their dogs obey some simple principles. But how do you get a dog to do that? One of the big schools of thought is you have to really be an alpha dog. You have to make sure the dog doesn’t think he can boss you around. That premise is probably based on some faulty rationale, that dogs evolved from wolves, and wolves have a very strict hierarchy. That’s a reasonable hypothesis, except that there’s one major problem: dogs are not wolves. Looking at feral dogs, what people have found is that they don’t have a strict hierarchy. It’s not that you follow the dominant individual. With feral dogs, the leader is the individual that has the most friendships in the group. It’s not about dominance.

There’s another school of training, which says that the more you practice the better they’ll be at sitting, staying, listening to you, obeying, etc. But there are studies that show that dogs that are trained less intensely actually learn faster and retain the information they learn longer. If you force animals to perform over and over, it actually makes a response less flexible.

Here’s a question that could get us in trouble. Are dogs smarter than cats?

It’s a very difficult question to answer in any meaningful way. I could ask you, which is a better tool, a hammer or a screwdriver? They’re designed to do different things. Compare the origins of these animals in the wild, their progenitors, the wolf and the wild African cat. You have one that is an endurance runner, a pack animal that relies on cooperation. You have another that is a relatively asocial, stalking hunter that relies on stealth to be successful. These are completely different social systems and ways of life, and evolution shaped those minds to be really different because they do completely different things in terms of how they make a living.

Fair enough. In addition to dog and cat partisans, I’m guessing that many pet owners will have another response to your book: “There’s no way my dog is a genius. He drinks out of the toilet and chases his own tail.” Would these people be wrong?

Everybody loves to talk about how amazing humans are as a species in terms of innovation and technology. We’ve invented the Internet and the iPad, and we have an International Space Station. Yes, as a species we’ve done that, but I can assure you that if somebody said to me today, “You have to invent the next iPad,” you might as well just shoot me. There’s also tremendous individual variation in dogs. In the case of the dog that chases his own tail, that may be a dog that the person thinks is a little bit on the dumb side, but there are some domains of intelligence that people aren’t really thinking about. Just because one individual dog isn’t particularly good at using gestures, for example, it doesn’t mean that they’re not absolutely remarkable in their memory, or that they can’t use your visual perspective to deceive you. One of the things we’re trying to do in the book is change the conversation about what is intelligence. A lot of people may find out, the dog that just chases his tail, there’s actually a lot more there than they expected.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.